translated by Gustav A Richar
Wind from Africa
by Fanny Morweiser
Translated by Gustav A Richar
"Paul," a woman called. "Paul!"
The boy acted as if he didn't hear. With his feet buried in the sand, he sat on the lowest step to the patio and watched a lizard clinging to one of the walls that separated this garden from those of the neighbors. Actually. garden was an overstatement. Where the sand ended, some thorny pale-green plants were growing. He didn't know their nameprobably a kind of thistle.
The only tree, a pine, stood beside the wall and shared its shade between two gardens. The neighbor to the left had placed tomatoes on the wall for ripening; the one to the right, their swim wear for drying.
Something doesn't add up here, Paul thought. Either one whole wall belongs to us or half of each wall does. Well, Mother will sort this out.
As if he had called her with his thoughts, she appeared in the doorway to the studio flat, holding out her arms, heaped with clothes, toward him, "What's the matter?" she said. "Aren't you going to help?"
During their drive through France, a relentless drizzle had leaked into the suitcases fastened atop their car. But now, in the eternal sunshine of Corsica, things would dry in a short time. Different from last year, when they had vacationed in a farmhouse in the Spessart. The windows had been so small and the roof extended so far out that the sun never shone into their room. After a week, everything had felt stiff and clammy, including themselves, and his mother had totally lost her love for a romantic farmhouse life.
He shook the sand from his sandals and got up. "What do you want me to do?" he mouthed. Small and skinny, he stood in front of her and looked more like twelve than fourteen, his real age. His legs were thin and thickened at the knees. Spindle legs, Paul's phys-ed teacher called them when he saw the boy in shorts, but he said it without mockery because he liked Paul.
"Spread these over table and chairs so they'll be dry by evening." She threw the bundle onto the table and stretched her arms. "What wonderful heat," she said, "dry without mugginess, And if it's true what's written in the brochure, then that's the weather for the next three weeks."
She disappeared into the little house and he heard her warbling to herself while she was busy with broom and brush. Of course, she had to start cleaning immediately. She never felt happy until everything had taken on her scent. The boy took the damp clothes from the table, one piece at a time, and hung them on the branches of the pine, A breeze was moving blouses, shirts, and undies gently back and forth.
"Where is Papa?" he called.
She stopped singing and came with a dustbin full of sand onto the patio. "Look at this," she said, "final cleaning is included in the price. Well, one knows how untidy the French are."
"That's prejudiced," he said, "and besides, one should never generalize. You wouldn't like it if someone says that all German women have the cleaning bug."
"I wouldn't take that for an insult," she said, tipping the sand into the garden and looking disapprovingly at the pine, decorated with clothes. "If pitch has touched anything, I'll pin your ears to the barn door."
"Where is Papa?" he said again.
"He's looking around a bit. You know your father when it comes to tidying up and unpacking. Somehow he always manages to dissolve into thin air right then." She listened, because someone was speaking in the garden to the left, and she shook her head. "These French talk so quickly that one doesn't get anything they say."
As if you would understand a thing, he thought, but said nothing. He squeezed past her through the wall-high French door into the one room that would be their living quarters for three weeks, Brown tiles covered the floor. The whitewashed walls went with the unfinished wood of the furniture, which consisted of three beds, a table, and four chairs. The kitchen unit, with stove, fridge, and a cupboard above them, was along the wall. The door to the bathroom was beside the kitchen.
He took his swim trunks and locked himself in the small bathroom to change. His skin was white with bluish shadows where his bones protruded. He wrinkled his nose. He didn't like his Odor, this cheesy smell of children that reminded him of unwashed skin and infrequently changed underwear. With his arms propped on the wash basin, he looked at himself in the mirror. When would he be an adult? Not that he actually wished for it, but the condition he lived in now was not pleasant either.
He took his underpants, jeans, and shirt, crumpled them together, and dropped the bundle on one of the beds. "I'm going," he called.
His mother, who in the meantime had moved aside patio table and chairs and was sweeping the tiles, stopped for a moment and, standing in the bright sunshine, tried to see him in the dark room. "Put a shirt on or use sun screen lotion," she advised.
"Hmm," he said. He opened the door opposite the patio and stepped outside. The heat received him and enveloped him and was so noticeable on his bare skin that a shiver ran down his spine. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Behind him, the door fell shut.
The entire place was one vacation village, like several others along this coast; ghettos with tennis court, supermarket, and restaurant, all for the tourists. Most of the small houses, arranged in an offset pattern, were bungalows with flat roofs. But a few houses had a second floor, reached by an outside staircase. lie ambled along flagged, narrow paths lined by palms and oleanders in tubs. Some trees, already half-wilted, had yellow leaves, as if nobody was caring for them, and he got also similar impressions of neglect from other things, though the holiday resort was new and its construction not yet completed. That didn't surprise him. Already on their drive through France, he had gratefully observed that the farther south they drove, the more the residents' indifference increased toward sanitary facilities, as if there were more important things than a well-functioning flush toilet or a shiny wash basin. This had amazed his parents.
For a while he stopped, immersed in thought, at a place in the shadow of pines where forgotten bocce balls were lying in the sand. A group of tanned children in swim suits talked loudly while walking by him, but he ignored them. Light and shadows were drawing on the sand a pattern that fascinated him. As if called upon to decipher secret runes, he squatted, and cocked his head to one side. The light squiggles and stripes moved together to form a word. P.. A U. L, he spelled in a low voice and then once more, grinning and shaking his head: PAUL. But then it was gone and as much as he tried, he didn't see even one letter. Nevertheless, he was happy, as if he had become immortal through this message visible only for seconds.
The restaurant with an attached patio in front stood where the actual beach started-a few meters from the sea shore. He recognized his father sitting under one of the beach umbrellas, and he waved to him. Father didn't seem to notice him. From a glass in his hand, he sipped a raspberry-red liquid through a straw, all the while looking at the beach. When Paul came closer and could see around the corner of the patio, he understood what fascinated his father. Most of the girls and women who were lying in the sand and propping themselves up by their arms, were offering themselves with closed eyes and bare breasts to the sun. And since the sun stood behind his father's back, all these provocative breasts heaved and expanded in his direction. Paul felt himself blushing. Not because of his father, whom he almost envied for his uninhibited interest-no, he felt insecure. If he walked among these half-naked women to the sea and looked intentionally away from them, people would think him inhibited, if he looked at them, they would take it for adolescent Curiosity. He swallowed a few times so that his Adam's apple jumped, walked to his father, and sat down on the chair beside him.
"Hello," his father said, turning to him, and putting down his glass. "What do you say to that? Mother will have a fit. Do you want an orange juice?"
Paul nodded. A young man in white pants came to their table and took the order. Indifferently he stood beside the table; his eyes, roaming over beach and sea, were uninvolved and so bored, as if there was indeed nothing else to see but water and sand, and Paul had to admit to himself that one becomes accustomed to everything in the end.
"What's mother doing?" his father said.
The ocean was not as blue as he had imagined. Where the waves rolled steadily against the beach, flotsam had built a wide seam. In it lay washed-up wood, pieces of bark, and small furry balls that looked like tiny coconuts. The sand was clean-finely ground; it shone like silk in the sun, but was dull and dark where the sea withdrew in steady intervals. On the same level as the restaurant, thorny bushes grew up and down the shore as far as he could see. Pines stood farther inland.
"This direction," his father said, "leads to Bastia." He pointed with his thumb to the left. "In the other direction you get more holiday resorts."
"Could I walk that far?" Paul said.
"Sure. As long as you walk along the sea. Why not."
They didn't talk. Paul drank from the ice-cold orange juice that the waiter had set in front of him. He watched two young men pushing a pedal boat into the water. The muscles on their tanned arms played under their oiled skin. The young men called short commands to each other and sashayed around as if they felt all eyes upon them. Paul sneered. That kind existed at the swimming pool at home too. A nutshell would be sufficient to store their brains-but make that clear to the girls! He looked at his white legs and resolutely moved his chair so that he sat in the sun. His father held the slip of paper-their typed bill-as far away from his eyes as possible and tried to decipher the numbers. "You read it," he said. "Looks like I'll soon need reading glasses. Fortunately, I see everything that's farther away needle-sharp." And as if he wanted to test this claim, he again reviewed the parade of breasts before he put the amount of money that Paul had told him, on the table.
Ruth closed the door to the one-room bungalow she had rented for two weeks. With a thud she let herself fall on one of the beds. She was completely done in. The drive through France had not been bad, but last night on the overcrowded ferry, she had used up her last strength so that when she finally arrived at the holiday resort, she was not able to notice much of her surroundings. In the bare, unfinished administration building, she had to wait for the manager for half an hour. When he grasped that she was alone, he handed her the key to her bungalow with a meaningful grin and showed her on the wall map how to get there. He spoke no German, and since she understood no French, their conversation was limited to handing documents back and forth and to a few gestures from him that meant to imply she had selected the right place. She had been looking at the heap of dirty linen lying on the floor in the middle of the room, and at the wool blankets piled up against the wall. Weary, she nodded to everything he said. Finally he let her go, but not before he showed her outside where best to park her car so it wouldn't get stuck in the sand. Then, hopping on his short legs, he departed with a melodic, "Au revoir, Madame!"
It was the first time that she had gone alone on holidays. Her girlfriend, who worked in the same office and who had always accompanied her, got married last winter. That was probably the reason that she, as her mother said, was bent on getting her own way this vacation, regardless. Now she was in a holiday resort, where, almost exclusively, families with children stayed-not much could happen to her here. Who would actually risk anything for her? She was of tall and massive build, and only people who knew her well, discovered under her robust exterior the sensitivity of a teenager.
With a last effort she pulled off her shoes and fell asleep. When she woke, the sun was setting; light, falling through the blinds of the patio door, was drawing stripes across the dusty floor. She yawned and looked at her watch. At home they always had their supper at this time. She had to hurry if she still wanted to unpack her car by daylight. Someone had told her that daylight lasts longer in the south, but that it would get dark quickly with none of this in-between stage where the shadows move in gradually so that nobody would be surprised by the onset of night.
She got up, ran her hands through her hair, and looked around. A while ago she had been too tired to look closely at the furnishings. She liked what she saw; just right for one person. When one imagined that an entire family would have to live in this room . . . She shook her head and pushed open the patio door. The garden was a pitiful sight, but what could grow in sand? Hungrily she inhaled the spicy aroma of barbequed meat. She, too, would eat outdoors this evening. Cheerfully she folded three of the four patio chairs standing around a circular table, and leaned them against the house. She moved the last chair into such a position that later, when sitting at the table, she had a view of the other houses, which unfortunately she couldn't see too well because they were hidden behind pines and bushes. That didn't matter. The others could do as they pleased, she couldn't care less. Perhaps this was the only reason she had traveled to Corsica. Since she didn't speak the language, no one would expect her to talk with them. And if there were Germans here, she would simply act as if she was a foreigner. Apart from her girlfriend and her mother, she seldom spoke to anyone else. Life was changing more and more so that one could cope without having to talk. No one would notice in a department store, on a bus, in a fast-food restaurant if one was mute or just didn't want to talk. That was fine-for her anyway,
She walked back into the house, slipped into her shoes, and reached for the car keys. After she had left the ferry and driven along the coastal road, she had stopped at one of those wooden, reed-covered booths that were everywhere, and had bought peaches, white bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine. Now, while carrying her suitcase and the bag of groceries from her car to her bungalow, she looked in passing into other small 1 houses where lights were already switched on. Almost every door was open to catch the breeze of the cool evening air, and she heard radios blaring, children yelling, and dogs barking, and she thought how good a solitary dinner would taste. For nothing in the world would she have changed places with one of these women who, jammed into the narrowest space, were busy with cooking, making beds, laying the table while little children rolled under foot and husbands buried themselves behind newspapers.
After arriving at her bungalow, she unpacked her suitcase and put dresses, swim suits, and underwear into the rickety wardrobe made of plywood that stood beside the door to the bathroom. Lastly, she lifted from the suitcase a stack of paperbacks, which she held tenderly against her cheek for a moment, before she put it on her bed, She pulled the cork from the wine bottle, poured a little of the golden liquid into a glass and tasted it. The wine was sweet, almost like a liqueur. She sighed contentedly and topped up her glass. Who would share her evening this time? Gingerly she sorted through her library until she came to a particularly well thumbed book. its cover showed an attractive man with greying temples who held in hi's arms a young woman who looked adoringly at him. Doctor Florian's Happiness was its title. Ruth nodded with devotion. "Good evening, Doctor Florian", she said, leaned the book against the bottle, and unwrapped the cheese.
Paul was glad when, after the long march along the coast, he finally reached Bastia. He ran up and down the steep and narrow streets, always being surprised by sudden views from higher places onto the truly blue-shining sea, as blue as the travel brochures had promised. And when, after having roamed about for a long time, lie climbed up to the fortified castle that towered over the city, he found a small garden there. Grass grew under the steady spray from a fountain overshadowed by flowering bushes, and the green was as velvety and deep as he knew it from home-not the hard and bluish hue that was so typical of the plants on this dry coast. For a time he sat on a bench in this garden that dripped with wet, stretched out his legs, and received the drizzle, thankful and exhausted. sinking into an agreeable sleepiness, as if he were an old man who had nothing else left than to sit and wait for another day to pass.
This was the first time since he had arrived on Corsica that he felt good. Perhaps it was the climate or simply he himself. But he could have screamed because of boredom in these past days, which he had spent with his parents in the holiday resort and on the beach. He looked at his skinny legs that the sun had reddened. At least he didn't have a sunburn like his father who, covered with watery blisters and affected by shivering fits, couldn't sleep last night and who, in a low voice, muttered curses at the land, the sun, and the vacation, so that neither he nor his mother could have any rest. It was good that he had cleared out today. Because as soon as his father felt better again, he would only be in their way. What was customary at home on Saturdays, came over them far more often during vacation time. Perhaps he should do them a favor and sleep on the patio. He got up, took another deep breath of the moist, blossom-scented air, and strolled to the exit. A flagged path wound into the yard of the castle. He stopped now and then to look through the windows in the walls down at the city, and at the old harbor where many boats were moored in the oil-coloured water behind the breakwater.
Around a turn in the path, he almost bumped into the back of a big woman who was pressing herself against the wall and seemed to be fascinated by something in front of her, He murmured an apology, slipped by her, and saw a man with his arms crossed, leaning against an iron fence a few steps ahead of her, and fixing her with his eyes. He wasn't tall, but also not as short as most of the Corsicans whom Paul had seen so far. His muscular upper arms showed clearly through his striped cotton shirt; his black hair had a bluish hue, which repeated itself in the squarish trimmed beard that covered chin and cheeks, His dark eyes, glittering as if covered by varnish, seemed to be without depth and revealed nothing. Paul wanted to pass the woman and the man, but in that moment her hand grabbed him from behind and kept a firm hold on him.
"Young man," she said.
He turned around. She was more than a head taller than he, and he remembered having seen her on the beach, lying alone under a beach umbrella, a stack of colorful paperbacks beside her, and, when she wasn't sleeping, she had been reading one of those books. He had noticed her thick white thighs, streaked by blue veins, and the indifference with which she responded to curious or amused looks-as if she wasn't aware of anything around her. But now she seemed to have lost her cool. Little beads of perspiration stood above her upper lip, and her hand that held him, was trembling.
"Yes?" he said.
"Could you ... may I?"
Without further ado she linked arms with him and dragged him past the man who only turned down one corner of his mouth when they passed, but that gesture contained so much contempt for her mighty protector that the blood rushed to Paul's head. Furious, he freed himself from her in the yard.
"Thank you," the woman said, not seeming to notice his anger. "I'm very glad that you helped me. My name is Ruth." She held out her hand to him. "Ruth Little."
He realized that she addressed him now with the familiar du. Because she had looked at him closer? Or did she believe she could devalue him since the danger was now over? He took her stretched-out hand and looked up. The man was leaning over the railing. When he met Paul's eyes, he smiled, spread his arms so that his palms pointed up, lifted his shoulders, and let them drop again.
"My name is Rosenbaum," Paul said.
She giggled. "What a funny name."
He moved his eyes from the man on the parapet and looked closely at her for the first time. What was more comical about Rosenbaum than about Little, particularly when the bearer of the name looked like she did? He turned around and wanted to go, but she again held on to him.
"Would you walk with me to my car?" she said. "Otherwise he'll follow me again."
Without waiting for his answer, she walked across the sunny yard, through the archway out onto the street. Paul followed her, walking sometimes beside her, sometimes behind her and said nothing till they reached her little Fiat parked in the shadow of a church. All he needed now was for her to invite him to drive with her. But she didn't.
"What a piece of luck, she said after she had got into her car and turned down the window, "that I met you. Are you here on holidays?"
She started the engine and he nodded and stepped aside so she could back up more easily. She waved when she drove away, but he didn't even lift his hand.
Ruth watched him getting smaller and smaller in the car mirror and shook her head. She found it almost laughable that a man could give her such a fright that she had sought help from someone scarcely more than a child. And everything had started so well. For the day she had planned a sight-seeing tour to Bastia: the museum, the castle, the churches. But in one of those narrow, sloping streets she had stopped in front of a basement shop that offered all kinds of junk for sale. Pictures, china, glassware, rusty swords, books. She had looked at everything and had gradually walked to the rear of the store when she, with a start, saw the owner of all these treasures sitting in a corner. He seemed asleep. His eyes were closed, his hands lay loose and relaxed on the armrests of his chair. But when she wanted to head for the exit, he had, as if in his sleep, extended his leg, preventing her from walking by.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ruth said.
Without answering, he, extended his second leg when she wanted to go in the other direction so that she was caught between his knees, unable to move forwards or backwards. For almost a minute they stayed like that, then he released her with a short click of his tongue, and with a flushed face she rushed from his store. The fact that he then followed her-through streets, along a boulevard shaded by plane trees, across squares, and over stairways, always at a distance but not to be shaken off-managed to confuse her to such a degree that she pressed herself against the wall of the castle like a cornered animal. If the boy hadn't come ... She turned into the coastal road and got a real shock when another car shot by her with its driver sounding the horn. She had to get used to that too. Apparently everyone drove here as he thought fit.
She stopped in front of a supermarket, bought bread, cheese, meat, and a bottle of the honey-coloured wine that she liked so much. Gradually she felt better. If that man had only approached her differently ... not treating her like a piece of meat ... who knows, perhaps she would have accepted an invitation from him. A brutal strength had radiated from him-disturbing, but also fascinating. After he had got her scent, he had followed her without detours or tricks, like a dog following a bitch in heat.
She returned to her car, put her groceries on the back seat, and eased into the traffic. After a few hundred meters, between a long lagoon and the sea, came the turnoff that led to the holiday resorts. She drove slowly. The road snaked between reeds and rampant-growing bushes; now and then the surface of the lagoon appeared to her right; to her left behind the white sand beach was the sea. Blackened tree stumps and scorched hedges suggested that wild fires frequently happened here. No wonder in this dryness. If the wind off the sea hadn't brought a slight cooling, the heat, at times, would certainly have been unbearable. She drove by a camp ground, passed a group of barefooted children, and turned through the open gate into her resort walled off from the road.
She parked her car in the shade under the trees and while she walked the narrow path between the houses toward her bungalow, a feeling of familiarity came over her, as if now, amidst hanging laundry, scattered toys, and air mattresses leaning against the wall to dry, nothing bad could happen to her anymore. Like someone fleeing before the rain finds cover under someone else's roof, she found protection in these everyday things that testified to a life, which only a short time ago had seemed insignificant to her.
After the woman in her car had turned into the coastal road and disappeared from his view, Paul turned slowly around. What he had assumed had indeed happened. The stranger was still on the trail. He walked out from the shade of the church portal, down the stairs, toward him, and stopped so close in front of him that Paul became aware of the strong scent that came from the man's beard-not sweetish, but still heavy, and the boy who until then had thought it was unmanly to use perfume, inhaled, half-numbed, this scent of wood and spices that didn't seem at all effeminate. As it sometimes happened, it suddenly was completely silent in the square for several seconds. The noise from the great boulevards and the diverse sounds from houses and streets dwindled, so that the accumulated heat from between the walls, and the picture of a rigidly standing plane tree with a dog sleeping under it so affected Paul that he began to tremble.
The man lifted one arm and got hold of Paul's shoulder. In this way, without saying anything nor increasing the pressure of his hand, he directed him into a side street that led steeply down to the harbor. The street's slope was eased by several built-in staircases. They stopped in front of a basement shop. Pastopoulet Antiquities was written above the door.
The man pointed to the sign.
"Your store?" Paul said. "Are you Pastopoulet?"
He nodded and pushed Paul before him into the shop. With an expansive gesture he invited him to look at everything, but stayed beside him, watching. junk had never interested the boy, but when Pastopoulet opened a small box that contained coins, Paul touched several of them with curiosity. They had to be quite old, because they were worn and still partly crusted with earth. Using his fingernail, Paul cleaned a few letters on the surface of a coin and laboriously deciphered a Latin name. "Roman coins," he said.
Pastopoulet took the little box from him and shut its lid. "La femme," he said.
Paul looked uncomprehending at him.
Pastopoulet disappeared into the rear of his store, searched in a drawer, and finally returned with a feminine statuette in his hand. It was a painted mermaid, made from plaster of Paris, whose lower body, including the tail, was formed so that it could be used as a soap dish. "La femme," Pastopoulet repeated. He handed the statuette to the boy and took the little box with the coins, then he held his open hand toward him and Paul, who began to understand, laid the mermaid on it. Pastopoulet smiled with satisfaction and gave him the little box. "Voilà", he said.
"But I don't even know her," Paul said. "Except by sight. Besides, she's afraid of you." He put the coin box onto a chest and backed up toward the exit. Pastopoulet did not follow him. With his head lowered he looked at the little woman whose pink-painted flesh was standing out brightly against his hand.
"So long," Paul said, turned on his heels, and hurried out onto the street. Relieved, he ran down to the old harbor, sat down on a breakwater, and let his legs dangle. Below him, an old man scratched flaking paint off a boat with a knife. Opposite from him-on the other side, two narrow walls, topped at their ends with small lighthouses, bordered the harbor up to the entrance to the sea-children were milling about, repeatedly jumping and diving into the water. Close to where he sat, under an awning in front of a restaurant, tables were set for dinner. Paul pulled up his legs, embraced them with his arms, and rested his chin on his knees. Had he not acted almost like St. George who liberated the maiden from the dragon? With the difference that George's maiden had most likely been more attractive. But after all, he, Paul, was no knight either.
The mosquitos that came nightly from the lagoon, slept during the day as did most of the adult vacationers on the beach. Only the children were awake. They called each other with high-pitched voices that carried above the roar of the sea and ran with wet feet among the sleepers. The wind from Africa wafted continuously over the coast, cooled the sun-heated bodies. Paul yawned and shook the sand from his legs. Squinting, he looked over the sea, counted the sail boats that moved in a straight line across the horizon-but he soon gave that up. He turned onto his back and lifted his head.
A broad shadow fell over him and a voice, only too familiar, gave joyous little cries of recognition. Ruth, traipsing along, as if sleepwalking, had almost fallen over him on her way to her spot on the beach and seemed to see this, their second meeting, as an omen. She spread out her blanket beside him, opened her beach umbrella, and stuck it deep into the loose sand. Hopping mad, he watched as she took suntan lotion from her beach bag and began to rub the lotion onto her mighty thighs. After she had finished that, she begged him, "Do my back."
Automatically, he took the bottle and stared at the loose flesh, which he thought disgusting.
"Come on," she urged.
He squirted the lotion onto her back and rubbed it in so vigorously that her skin got red blotches. The leader of a group of French boys and girls, who was leading his troupe to the water, as he did every day, stopped beside Ruth and Paul. Reproachfully he looked at the boy before he --with a loud snort-ran ahead of his flock into the sea. Other people, too, had become aware of them and followed his efforts with more or less amusement. He closed the bottle and got up.
"I'll head for the water," he said. With a few steps he was so far away from her that he could not hear her answer, had she given one. Shivering, he felt the cold water on his legs. He took a deep breath and dove, head first, into an oncoming wave. It was great to swim against the current; snorting and diving, time after time, to dodge the waves' impact, he swam out to the sandbank, which-he knew-was a meter under water. It wasn't easy to find and he was glad when his feet finally touched the soft sea floor. Heaving a sigh of relief, he stood up and turned around.
The beach was far away. The umbrellas shone in every color, and it took him awhile to find the spot where he had left Ruth. With her thighs apart, she was lying on her belly, fat and flabby, and he hated her so much he could have killed her. As if these holidays with his parents weren't already bad enough, now this old bag had to attach herself to him-she, who couldn't care less about anyone and who spoke with no one. What did she actually see in him? A kind of little brother playing cavalier for her? Certainly not as a manly being, because she seemed to fear men, except when they appeared in her paperbacks. What did Pastopoulet see in her? He looked at the goose bumps on his arms and tried to warm them by rubbing. There was no way around for him other than to go back on land farther up. But what would that solve? The beach was too easily scanned to escape from her indefinitely. When his fingers began to turn blue, he made up his mind.
Pastopoulet sat in his store, dozing the day away. Sometimes someone entered the cellar to look at his antiques and he would watch these strangers through lowered eyelids, pretending to be asleep. He did not offer anything; he didn't bargain. When an interested person stopped in front of him and spoke, he gave information reluctantly, as if it didn't matter to him whether he sold something or not. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, he had more success than his friend Bastien who sold wine, honey, and spices in a similar basement a few streets farther on, and who swamped anyone entering his store with acts of courtesy. When Pastopoulet visited him-he walked by at least two or three times a day-Bastien always had a few people sitting around a large table, offering them samples of different wines. And since he drank with them, Pastopoulet always saw the same picture at his last visit in the evening: a happily drunk company whose center was the much- -too-generous Bastien with glassy eyes and heavy tongue.
But today he hadn't been there even once, although evening was close and Bastien had already sent a messenger boy to ask if he was ill. No, he wasn't ill. But he longed for that big, white-skinned woman, and he knew that this thorn in his flesh would work itself loose only when he had her. He was crazy to believe that she or the boy would come back, yet he still remained seated. Only late in the afternoon did he rise clumsily. Because he had sat for such a long time, his legs had gone to sleep, and he rubbed them with his hands till a prickling sensation gave him the feeling that the blood was beginning to flow again. Slowly he walked to the rear into the alcove that held a wash basin, his bed, and a wardrobe containing his personal belongings.
The shirt, which he had worn yesterday, was soaking in the basin. He wrung it out and laid it indifferently over the chair; then he ran fresh water into the basin to wash himself. He was just wiping lather off his ears when he heard steps in the store.
Without looking, he knew it was the boy. He dried himself and put the towel away wearily because he was now quite certain that he would have the woman and because this soon-to-come-true wish would leave him lonelier than he already was. This was similar to his wanderings through Bastia at night Although he knew that he was welcome everywhere, he tormented himself with the desire to belong, would remain standing outside wherever he saw a light and saw joyous people sitting together, and imagine how it would feel to be with them. Yet when he entered and joined them, the situation never fulfilled his imagination and he soon left his friends only to stop outside another door a bit later and feel excluded from everything that was light and good and joyous.
The boy, uncertain about whether he should walk farther, had stopped in front of the alcove and cleared his throat. Pastopoutet pushed the curtain aside. Despite the pathetic background, he again had, in Paul's eyes, the aura of a prince's loneliness about him, the exotic scent of a king from the Orient. Paul swallowed and ran his hand over his throat. But his rage about the fat woman was still so great that he overcame his apprehension.
"La femme," he said, because this word had made an impression on his mind and now appeared to him like a password, a kind of magic word similar to All Baba's open sesame! Ruth had gone too far and he was here to hand her over to an uncertain fate. How that would happen he didn't know, but that was the business of the man who stood in front of him with his head lowered in seeming contemplation. Finally Pastopoulet walked by him, indicated that Paul should follow him, left the shop open and accessible to everyone-in it the soap dish, shaped as a mermaid, and the coin box, which the boy would not have accepted anyway. That he wanted to betray Ruth was his personal affair and had nothing to do with the offered price..
Outside they walked up a flight of stairs, turned right into an even narrower lane, and entered Bastien's's tavern. The room was without windows; light came through the archway with its double doors wide open to the street. The large table with chairs stood in the middle, and around the walls up to the ceiling were shelves filled with wine, honey pots, and smoked sausages.
When he recognized his friend, Bastien gave a short shout of welcome, but then returned to a vigorous discussion with two gypsies who had their fill of food and drink, judging by the leftovers on the table, and who apparently wanted to leave now without paying. The boy stayed in the background, but Pastopoulet grabbed one gypsy from behind by the neck and turned the man to face him.
"Ah, Pastopoulet," he said and grinned, searched in his pockets and put a few crumpled bills on the table. "Viens!" He got hold of his companion, who protested loudly, and pulled him out into the street. "C'est lui," Paul heard him say, "tu sais." And the other stopped cursing, turned toward Pastopoulet and stared curiously at him. Bastien had rolled the money together and stuffed it into his pocket. Now he sat, crimson-faced and breathing heavily, on one of the chairs and filled his glass with wine. He drank, listened to Pastopoulet's explanations, nodded, and turned to the boy. "I speak your language," he said. "I speak it well, n'est-ce pas? You'll have to excuse the argument. I like to give, but there's a limit to everything. Now, what about the fat woman? Can he have her?"
Paul nodded. Suddenly he felt dizzy. He had run to Pastopoulet because he had been angry, but what would they do with Ruth. He looked helpless and Bastien laughed. "Have no fear," he said. "Can you bring her here? This evening?"
"Tomorrow," Paul said.
"Demain," Bastien said to his friend and refilled his glass. For him, the matter was closed. With brow furrowed, he looked across the table, took a leftover sausage and a piece of white bread and offered them to the boy. Then he poured the rest of the wine from a glass onto the floor, refilled the glass and handed it to Paul. Pastopoulet helped himself. The boy drank. The wine, sweet and smooth like honey, flowed down his throat and made him happy. He felt like a man among men, listened to the two, though he didn't understand a word of their talk, took a bite of the bread, and tasted the sausage that at first felt hard and tough, but soon developed an exquisite flavour-an aroma of herbs, spices, and smoke.
After half an hour he got up, pressed Bastien's hand, smiled at the gloomy looking Pastopoulet, and staggered out onto the street. Only after he had walked a good distance, did he realize that he was no longer afraid of the dogs with their bloodshot eyes. The animals prowled everywhere and looked somehow ill, which was no surprise to him, because they drank the dirty water that ran in gutters along streets and lanes down to the sea.
Ruth was lying in the bath tub and felt bored. Again and again she had read her paperbacks that now, tattered and covered with stains of suntan lotion, were piled in a corner of the room. She didn't know why she was unable to withdraw completely into the world of her paper dreams the way she used to. It felt as if the eternal sun of Corsica had burnt a hole in her elephant skin that now was beginning to open more and more. Had it started with the boy? As indifferent as she essentially felt toward him, the touch of his hands on her back, when he had rubbed her with suntan lotion, had awakened the wish in her for more intensive contact, a vague longing that she couldn't define, but that was present and was spoiling for her what had been sufficient until now. She looked at her thighs. The skin had tanned a little, so that the blue veins didn't show as much and she asked herself if it made any sense to lose weight. Not a crash diet, just enough to perhaps find a place closer to the center of the herd instead of trotting at the edge of it. A place near the center where she could feel warm and secure, where skin rubbed against skin.
With her toes, she pulled the plug from the tub and waited till the water had drained before she got up, snorting and shaking off water droplets. When someone knocked on the door, she stood naked in the middle of the room, and for a moment considered opening the door-just as she was, so at least someone, it didn't matter who, saw her for once like this, but then she snatched the sheet from her bed, wrapped it around herself, and opened the door. It was the boy and she saw immediately that he had been drinking.
"Come in," she said.
He shook his head and looked away. Meanwhile he didn't feel so good anymore, but he had to take advantage of the alcohol's freeing effect to tell her what was there to tell. "I would like to," he said and still didn't look at her, "take you to Bastia tomorrow evening. I have. . ." he hiccupped and quickly put his hand over his mouth.
"Yes?" she said.
". . . discovered a pretty tavern." He overcame his inclinations and looked at her with the humbled eyes of a dog that someone had given a kick, because it was a different thing to stand in front of her and to lure her into a trap, than to say in an excess of fury: I'll do it.
"Fine," she said, "I'll come. We take my car. OK?"
"And you'll stop by for me?"
"But sober, if you please," she said, raised a warning finger, and closed the door. He didn't even make it to the beach. Behind the next pine he crouched down in the sand and was sick.
Bastia at night was a totally different city from what it was during the day. Everything shabby and dirty seemed to have disappeared illuminated like wings in a theater, citadel, churches, and houses looked changed, seemed fabulous and bizarre. Music was everywhere; open doors enticed one to enter. Excited as he was, Paul took in the pictures that made an impression on his mind like a movie with its scenes repeatedly taken till they had reached perfection ... an obese boy who waddled with splayed thighs across the street to disappear behind the bead curtain of a bar with barbarously red lights ... an old woman who carried a cage of white doves ... a group of chattering little girls that two nuns herded across the square. Leading the splendidly dressed-up Ruth by the arm, he walked up and down the stairs, prolonged the moment when they would enter Bastien's and he would leave her in Pastopoulet's hands. Until she revolted.
"You wanted to show me a tavern," she said. "Of course, I invite you. We can't stay away too long or else your parents will get worried. Do they even know where you are?"
He shook his head. He had made his bed on the patio, and his parents had gone to bed early and had no idea that he had gone away. But that was none of Ruth's business. "Don't give it a thought," he said. "We'll be there in a moment."
Again the door to Bastien's basement stood wide open and allowed a view over the table-covered with bottles and glasses-where a colorful company was seated. In its center was the wildly gesticulating Bastien. When he recognized Paul, he leaped to his feet and came toward them,
"Beautiful lady," he said and took Ruth's hand.
No one laughed. Either they didn't understand his words, or they were so drunk that they believed the compliment was appropriate for Ruth. With a flick of his hand Bastien shooed two of his guests from their places and offered the seats to Ruth and Paul. Close together they sat among strangers, barely noticed by them. The zealous Bastien immediately topped up their glasses as soon as they had drunk from them. Pastopoulet was nowhere to be seen and Paul began to relax. Perhaps Pastopoulet didn't want anything anymore-had forgotten their date. This time he was more careful with his drinking. When he had reached the stage of an agreeable sluggishness, he stopped, leaned back in his chair, and perceived the voices of others, seated close to him, just as a uniform background noise, a steady up and down, similar to the murmur of the sea, calming and sleep-inducing Through half-closed eyelids he observed the person opposite him, a wrinkled little man, and then his eyes followed the smoke hanging below the ceiling and moved toward the open door. Outside a light mist had formed just above the street surface, as if the pavement gave some of its collected heat to the cooler night air, and in this mist-appearing like a ghost-stood Pastopoulet ... for how long? Suddenly wide awake, Paul straightened up. Bastien had begun to sing and Ruth, without knowing text or tune, was joining in the refrain with the other guests.
Paul grabbed her arm and pressed it. "Let's go," he whispered without taking his eyes off Pastopoulet.
"Why?" she said and turned to him. Her hair had come undone and was hanging in tangles around her cheerful red face. "I like it here. First you bring me here and then, when it starts to get interesting, you want to go home."
He lowered his head, saw from the corner of his eyes that Bastien was filling her glass again, felt fear and, at the same time, felt his anger rising at this fat woman, because it was for her, Pastopoulet was waiting, and whatever he had in mind for her, he wished to be in her place so he could surrender without a fight. "I'm leaving," he said angrily.
She giggled. Another glass or two and she would be totally drunk. "If you wait a little, I'll drive you home," she said. "You'd still be home sooner than if you walked."
"I like walking," he said. He got up and forced himself out of the group, felt how two hands were supporting him. Then Pastopoulet took his place.
Translated from the German, by Gustav A. Richar
Fanny Morweiser is the author of Der Texitanzer (1996) and Voodoo-Emmi (1987) among other books. Her work has been translated and appears in such magazines as Quarterly West and Antigonish Review. Morweiser was born in 1940, studied art at the Freie Akademie in Mannheim and now lives in Mosbach, a small German village in the Neckar River valley.
Gustav Richar is the author of the short story collection Cloud Lake (Columbo & Company). His prose has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Quarry, South Dakota Review and other journals. He edited three books of historical essays and has been translating the work of German author and film producer, Doris Dorrie, as well as that of fiction writers Matthias Matussek and Fanny Morweiser.
Copyright ©2002 Franny Morweiser, Gustav A Richar